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The Moon? Mars? Forget about it!
By Alan Caruba
As entertainment, I have always particularly enjoyed any television show or movie about space voyage. There's something compelling about a group of people, dependent on a space ship to carry them to or from danger. It is, as any Star Trek fan will tell you, "the final frontier." It is also largely absurd. Particularly when it involves billions of dollars this nation can ill afford to throw at a space program that robots could perform better than people.
Recently, I read an article by William Tucker, "The Sober Realities of Manned Space Flight", that was published in the December 2004 edition of The American Enterprise magazine. Tucker began by noting that President Bush's suggestion of a 280 million-mile manned space flight to Mars was a good idea. It is, in fact, an astonishingly bad idea, but even Presidents have a right to have bad ideas. "A quick NASA calculation," noted Tucker, "revealed that the Mars effort would cost nearly $500 billion over 30 years." Now take that figure and double it. Any estimate like that which is provided by a government agency -- any agency -- is usually wrong by a factor of two, three or higher.
I was quickly reminded of the spectacular and tragic failures of two Space Shuttles, one when it was launched and the second when it was returning to Earth. "The Space Shuttle was originally supposed to break even and fly every two weeks," said Greg Klerkx, the author of Lost in Space, a critique of NASA. Instead, "it ended up costing $500 million per launch, and flying four or five times a year." You should think of the Space Shuttle as a very expensive truck used to ferry cargo to the International Space Station.
Even the space stations, first Skylab, then the Russian's Salyut and Mir, failed to lead to the development of larger facilities manned by dozens of scientists and others who would learn what it would take to create entire space colonies. Nor, with good reason, did we ever return to the Moon.
Today's International Space Station, conceived in 1984, cost taxpayers $11 billion by 1992 and was still on the drawing board! At that point, the Clinton administration brought in the Russians to help, scaled down the project, and by a single vote in 1993, the House threw another $13 billion at it. The first stage was lifted into orbit in 1995 and, as Tucker notes, "when completed, the ISS will hold six astronauts. The two in residence now spend 85 percent of their time on construction and maintenance. In essence, the US is spending billions so that two astronauts can build a space shed." By the time it's finished, it will cost an estimated $150 billion.
Why didn't we return to the Moon? Why aren't there huge space stations? As Tucker points out, the experiments on the long-term effects of life in zero gravity demonstrate that humans do not belong in space. "The news has not been good. Muscles atrophy quickly and -- for reasons yet unknown -- the human body does not manufacture bone tissue in space." Moreover, the Moon "is a barren oxygen-less desert." Want to see a desert? We have them right here on Earth.
Humans returning from any extended time in space have the consistency of Jell-O. They are virtually helpless and take days to recover from the experience. Now think about the suggestion by President Bush that we send astronauts on an 18-month journey to Mars. Not only would their bodies suffer ill effects, they would be exposed to huge doses of cosmic radiation. We've already managed to kill two Space Shuttle crews, how many more times do we have to do this before we decide to abandon this bad and very expensive idea?
Much of what is required to launch and maintain those machines we send into Earth orbit can be and is done without using Space Shuttles. They have become the equivalent of trolley cars. Trolleys are useful on the sharp inclines of San Francisco streets and picturesque in New Orleans. I've been on both. They're slow and most people still drive their own cars around these cities.
It is the unmanned probes that have been the most successful ventures of NASA and therein lay several simple truths. (1) Humans are neither designed, nor intended to function in outer space and (2) technology permits us to do all the exploration we need to at this point in time. (3) Space probes are far less costly than Space Shuttles that have to be rebuilt from scratch every time they fly. (4) They are far less expensive. (5) No one gets killed.
At this point, I am sure there are those who want to speak poetically of the need to explore outer space by sending manned expeditions "because it is there" or on the chance that there is intelligent life "out there" with which we might come in contact. If it is intelligent, it already knows that the Earth runs red with the blood of its habitants every day as humans kill one another for political or religious reasons and we animals eat one another. Moreover, despite some lovely beaches and spectacular mountain ranges, large areas of the Earth are not the most hospitable places for the humans and other creatures that inhabit it.
So let me suggest that we not waste more billions on NASA's Space Shuttles and International Space Station. Let's not go to the Moon again or even think about going to Mars. It's a really dumb idea. Those privately funded space vehicles will cost you $200,000 a seat to float around for a few minutes or look out the window and see the Earth floating and spinning.
Like we say in New Jersey, forget about it. What I really want is an automobile that will run on salt water. We have plenty of that.
Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the website of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba 2004
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